How say you?

Despite the tawdry nature of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the vicious partisan politics behind the effort to impeach and remove Bill Clinton, it was impossible not to be impressed by the dignity and calm deliberation of the vote that ended the month-long Senate trial. For all its pettiness and excess, the event Americans have witnessed was remarkable. An effort has been made to depose the popularly elected leader of the world’s most powerful nation, yet not one shot was fired; not one drop of blood shed.

In failure, the House Republicans retreated with relative, if not complete, equanimity. In victory, the president’s friends and political allies issued no idle boasts or threats of vengeance. (Vowing to work for the defeat of Republican congressmen is not vengeance, but routine politics.) Both sides solemnly affirmed their loyalty to the Constitution and their resolve to abide, whatever their qualms about the process, by the Senate verdict. More remarkable, Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the often bombastic leader of the House impeachment managers, urged Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to end his continuing investigation of the president. "I don’t think indicting and criminally trying him, after what we have all been through, is going to be helpful to the country," Hyde said. He’s right-this time.

In the aftermath of his costly (politically and financially) and hard-fought-for acquittal, President Clinton also struck precisely the right note. In a appropriately brief statement, Clinton acknowledged that it was his own indefensible actions and false statements-not the depredations of his political enemies-that brought on impeachment and the yearlong national trauma. Of course, Republicans and Democrats will not fall into each others’ arms any time soon. The distance between the core constituencies of the two parties remains daunting. Much has also been written about how the impeachment drama has deepened the public’s alienation from and cynicism about politics. Certainly the public has reason for skepticism and frustration. But when Americans look at the violence and anarchy that accompany so much political conflict around the world, they also have reason to be grateful: grateful for the tensile strength of American democratic institutions, and grateful for the abiding comity in which our politics is enacted. If asked, "How say you?" about the health of this nation, Americans can answer: "Better than expected. Better, perhaps, than we deserve."

On the substance of the indictment against Clinton, Charles Ruff, the president’s lead defense counsel, made the most persuasive case. Ruff reminded the Senate that impeachment was designed as a political weapon of last resort. Only when no other option is available should a democracy turn to impeachment. Removal from office, the president’s lawyer argued, is warranted only when the president presents a threat to the constitutional order. Even if Clinton’s deceptions and conniving as depicted by his accusers were true-and the factual case was far from airtight legally-the alleged wrongdoing did not rise to the high, indeed exceptional, standard the Constitution demands. Overturning the results of a democratic election should be done with fear and trembling, not as a petty, moralizing crusade. In failing to give the House managers even a simple majority in favor of either article of impeachment, the Senate unambiguously rejected the idea that Clinton’s private excesses and failings justified a political execution.

Other conclusions can also be drawn from these events. Certainly the independent counsel statute, of dubious constitutionality to begin with, should be allowed to expire or be drastically reformed. Kenneth Starr thoroughly politicized his office, most offensively in becoming an advocate for impeachment, but also in repeated leaks to the press and in withholding the public exoneration of the Clintons in Whitewater and related matters until after the 1998 elections. The possibility that Starr misled Attorney General Janet Reno in seeking authority to investigate Monica Lewinsky is now being looked into by the Justice Department. But indicting Starr, perhaps a fitting, if ludicrous, end to what has become the criminalizing of political differences, is nothing anyone should wish for. As both the president and Congressman Hyde have said, now is the time for reconciliation, not retribution. The sooner Starr vacates his office, the better.

In presiding over the Senate trial, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist earned much praise for his measured performance. However, it should also be noted that it was the Rehnquist Court’s fatally flawed decision to allow Paula Jones’s civil suit to go forward that precipitated much of what has followed. The Court largely based that decision on the dubious idea that a president who had to defend himself in a civil suit would not be distracted from his other duties. The Court’s reasoning was implausible on its face, and as subsequent events have shown, utterly detached from political reality. Let the Court reverse itself, and let a president answer civil suits after his or her term of office expires. As the Jones case manifestly demonstrates, even so-called civil rights suits against a sitting president are simply too vulnerable to political manipulation.

It is hard to foresee what long-term effects Clinton’s impeachment will have on the nation and our political culture. Democrats are hopeful that the public’s disgust with impeachment will translate into votes against Republicans, and perhaps a return to Democratic control of the House. If the aftertaste of impeachment mobilizes the Democratic base and demoralizes the Republicans, that is possible. But much will depend on what happens between now and November of 2000.

In the meantime, Republicans will be licking their wounds and looking to exploit the president’s next misstep. Given Bill Clinton’s narcissism and hubris, they may not have long to wait.

Published in the 1999-02-26 issue: 
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